Each month in 2017, I’m planning to offer a round-up of recent nonfiction picture books with the hope that it will help parents and educators at all levels sort through and pick titles that are the best choices for their homes, classrooms, and libraries.
The first three books reviewed in this installment are excellent choices for Black History Month.
Although John Lewis became an extraordinarily important civil rights leader, Jabari Asim and E. B. Lewis give us the child who became that leader. Young John had to work hard on an Alabama farm, but the work he especially liked was caring for the chickens. He also liked going to church. Eventually John began sharing the spiritual lessons learned from his mother and his church with those chickens, and they seemed to understand his messages. Through this appealing depiction of a child finding ways to be positive in a world filled with challenges, readers will easily see foreshadowing of John Lewis’s later work with larger “flocks.”
Beyond being engaging as a nonfiction picture book narrative, Asim’s rich text can also provide students with examples of description, sensory images, details, and dialogue. The watercolors of E. B. Lewis, as in his other work in Jacqueline Woodson’s picture books, strike a dramatic balance between impressionism and realism.
Preaching to the Chickens is one of the finest nonfiction picture books of the past year.
Lena Horne would turn 100 this year, and The Legendary Miss Lena Horne is a worthy tribute to this icon. Although Horne may be largely unknown to today’s youngest readers, author Carole Boston Weatherford provides an engaging narrative for Horne’s life and career that touches on the Harlem Renaissance, Jim Crow South, prejudice on stage and screen, the civil rights movement, and ends with a nod to how “black stars now gleam on red carpets and reap box-office gold.” The text is accompanied by Elizabeth Zunon’s bright illustrations that effectively convey both the despair and glamour of Lena Horne. Rarely does a picture book biography so brilliantly capture an important life as well as a century of important periods in American history.
Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born is an excellent picture book introduction for young readers to the legend of The Greatest. After an introductory note explaining that Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali are the same person, the opening pages show the major moments from Ali’s boxing career and capture his charisma through his words. The illustrations are accurate but not overly graphic. Then the narrative moves back to an episode from Ali’s childhood. When his new bike is stolen, young Cassius appeals to a police officer for help, and the officer introduces him to the sport of boxing. From there, Ali’s life and career are conveyed with attention to both his athleticism and activism. The illustrations are bright and cartoon-like as they portray first a child and then a man who became the most well-known person on the planet. Ali’s life serves as a lesson that no matter what bad things might happen—a stolen bike, racial or religious persecution—we can always choose to respond with positivity.
A little period feels like writing a story but doesn’t have words. With the help of its friends—other punctuation marks and some (low-tech) writing supplies–words galore come along. Although a little muddled in the middle, Where Are the Words? features many good ideas about writing, including how punctuation can help shape ideas, how creativity can be sparked just by putting things side by side, and how supportive friends can sometimes provide inspiration when writers are stuck.
For those who use picture books in middle and secondary grades, Where Are the Words? has humor, sophisticated ideas, and clever illustrations and graphics that make it a worthwhile addition to upper-level classroom collections in addition to its obvious appeal for elementary classrooms and libraries.
This worthwhile addition to the venerable “Who Is?” series aimed at upper elementary-age readers covers the important aspects of Bruce Springsteen’s life and career. I can easily imagine young readers knowing about Springsteen from their parents and picking up this book to understand more about him, or to learn about the life of a rock star. Filled with illustrations that are eerily accurate, Bruce’s journey is explained in a kid-friendly approach that emphasizes how his growth as a writer mirrored his development as an artist. Supplemental materials include side-by-side timelines of Bruce’s life and important world events, as well as page-length explanations of relevant concepts such as “blue collar,” “Elvis Presley,” and “September 11.”
The story here is thin as “cool TV weather man” Gary decides that he should take his newly adopted puppy Sunny on a mountain-climbing adventure with his other dogs as a bonding activity. The weather turns bad and Sunny quickly becomes lost. Astonishingly, a helper dog named Jamie appears to point Sunny back in the right direction based on Sunny’s “choice” to leave tracks in the snow. Just as astonishingly, Jamie cannot be located when Gary returns to the cave with Sunny and the other dogs.
Author Gary Lezak is a Kansas City television meteorologist. It’s a Sunny Life may be of interest to those who see him on a regular basis, but there isn’t much in the book in terms of character or plot. Young readers fascinated by weather might hang in there with Lezak’s adventure story, and the eight pages of weather terms and facts found in the back material can also provide them with insights into weather phenomena.
I’m eager to know how the kids in your world respond to these books!
As always, thanks for reading.
These reviews appeared on Goodreads in slightly different form.